Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

The Summer Country

It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands.  It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.

That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a cool breeze ruffled my hair, and fluffy white clouds drifted in a deep blue sky. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. The heat was stifling. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.

The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this: 

Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:

He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.

Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere.

And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.

So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.

When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.

Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.

I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before.  This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:

This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt a happy, warm glow when I identified him.

Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first-hand accounts.

But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.

Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.

When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.

I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:

And then a male joined her:

And then they were gone:

As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.

About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:

Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.

By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.

Butterflies in Disguise

I may have mentioned my addiction to collecting things. (See, Why My Living Room Looks Like a Cabinet of Curiosities.)  One of the coolest things about my camera, besides providing me with hours of fun, is that it enables me to collect things that are alive (without, you know, making them not alive). So I’ve amassed a fairly decent butterfly collection without ever having to use a killing jar.

So at this point, you can just skip down to the photos, or if you happen to have any interest in butterfly evolution, you can read on:

I chose these particular photos to show off because they demonstrate one of my favorite tricks of nature: mimicry. Take the three types of black swallowtail in the pictures:

Pipevine Swallowtail

The Pipevine Swallowtail is poisonous to birds because it feeds on the toxic pipevine as a caterpillar.

 

Black Swallowtails

Several Tigers and a Spicebush Swallowtail

The Spicebush and the Eastern Black Swallowtails have evolved to look like the Pipevine to take advantage of its advantage. It’s called Batesian mimicry. The mimics are like sheep in wolf’s clothing and gain the advantage of looking like the wolf.

I also included another pair that show Mullerian mimicry: the Monarch and the Viceroy. In this case, both butterflies are the wolf.

Monarch

The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly feeds on milkweed which is toxic and unpalatable to birds. It makes them sick but doesn’t kill them. The birds remember and don’t try to eat the next monarch they see.

 

Viceroy

The Viceroy looks very similar to the Monarch and for years, it was thought that it was another example of Batesian mimcry. But studies have suggested that the Viceroy is also unpalatable to birds. Both butterflies have similar defense mechanisms so they both gain an advantage from the mimicry. (The more butterflies of similar pattern that all taste bad or induce sickness there are, the more quickly birds learn not to eat them.) Cool, Huh?

So I have a bonus question if anyone is interested. There are at least two more butterflies in the eastern United States that mimic the Pipevine Swallowtail. Anybody know what they are?

 

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